Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White shares a taste of a talk that he and poet Clare Crossman, a fellow Finding Blake contributor, gave on 19th October in Nenthead in Cumbria.
At the invitation of curator Maxine, with an audience of 30, we set up the screen in front of the lectern at the beautifully restored old chapel that is the Nenthead Arts and Visitor Centre and I showed a range of clips from the project so far, and shared the history of how it came to be.
Some of the selected highlights included the experience of going into Jordan’s Mine in Dorset, and on having such an immersive experience in the Kindersley workshop experiencing the letters being cut for Blake’s new stone, right through to engaging with scholars and creative minds through the interviewing process, to an assessment of getting ready for the final push and finishing the film.
Clare spoke deeply and with careful reflection of Blake as mystic and as a continuing inspiration, through both nature references and remarks on city life and culture in his work. She used her body of poems and study in associated areas to illustrate her talk.
I started by referencing the recent Extinction Rebellion in London, which I had been involved with for four days, and had brought some of that energy with me to Cumbria. Immediately before this talk I had come from a woodland in the North East, where I’d met a local Extinction Rebellion group — XR NE — talking about rewilding as the ultimate act of rebellion, and gathering seeds to further forest the planet as one of the most positive actions we humans can do.
There is no evidence Blake planted trees, though he certainly engaged with them, and it’s clear in my mind he would have supported the values of XR and shared the strong wish to throw off the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of a system that conspires against creativity and the inner/outer spiritual nature of the individual. He is an inspiration in seeking connection to all that is good and holy in this life and in this world as we know — until we transform ourselves internally as well as the world externally.
Here is the XR poster I used as an opening graphic for the Nenthead event.
A Finding Blake screening in Nenthead
I captured this footage of the start of the event — although this was just a camera on a tripod to record it, so apologies for lack of light and focus, and it not being complete. It was just meant to capture a taste of our talk and screening.
We shall be bringing the Finding Blake film to Nenthead for a screening in the New Year!
Poet Clare Crossman was one of our first contributing authors at Finding Blake, and we welcome Clare back with her reflections on A Poison Tree, a key poem in William Blake’s work, published in Songs of Experience in 1794.
I re-read A Poison Tree again recently because I run the south Cambridgeshire Poetry society, Stanza, and was looking for poems about Truth, which is the theme of this year’s national poetry day.
Adrian Mitchell, a great lover of Blake, was a necessary poet in the mix. The lyrics of his song The Truth were just what I needed and then there was Emily Dickinson, Don Patterson, WH Auden, and all the other poets on the National Poetry Day site.
I was reminded of A Poison Tree by one of the members during our discussion. The more we looked at poems the more it seemed that there was a very thin line between truth and lies, as we felt the truth can sometimes be unbearable. A Poison Tree was discussed because it was the one poem we all knew in which the effects of not saying how you feel or addressing anger can cause self-destructive anger and, as in the poem, death — or murder as some have suggested.
Directness and honesty is a tone that can be relied on in Blake. It is interesting to note that the original title of the poem was Christian Forbearance, an irony of course from Blake: a criticism of the buttoned-up and the easy Good. He disliked hypocrisy.
The poison of soft, deceitful wiles
Blake stares into the face of what anger does to us by setting his thoughts in a simple balance.
I was angry with my friend;I told my wrath, my wrath did end.I was angry with my foe:I told it not my wrath did grow.
There is difficulty in speaking to the enemy and so, full of resentment, he nurtures the Poison Tree inside him (I imagine capillaries through which a cancer is spreading):
And I watered it in fears,Night and morning with my tears:And I sunned it with smilesAnd with soft deceitful wiles.
Blake notes that how he responds to the enemy is to pretend to be pleasant: ‘soft deceitful wiles’. He smiles through his anger. As Shakespeare wrote, “A man may smile and smile and be a villain”.
In the third verse there is an elegant reversal, the apple in the Garden of Eden becomes a glittering object as if it has been touched by King Midas, not a beautiful piece of fruit:
And it grew both day and nightTill it bore an apple bright.And my foe beheld it shineAnd he knew that it was mine.
This apple does not belong in the Garden of Love, it has been created by things left unspoken and has become a symbol of deception and anger (‘My precious, my precious’). This apple does not cause the fall of man by being picked and eaten; it causes death destruction and an eerie acknowledgement of the way evil can fascinate and entangle.
Then there is the last verse.
And into my garden stole,When the night had veiled the pole:In the morning glad I see;My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
I don’t agree with literal interpretations of the last verse. I think it is too deliberately ambiguous, and my feeling is that it means more that the evil has somehow spread and been recognised by both the foe and the speaker in the poem. In the dark ‘night had veiled the pole’ both people in the poem have become part of the destructive anger.
A destructive anger
I wonder what started this poem off? We have all had relationships that end in anger and silence, with both people involved feeling damaged. The singer-songwriter Beth Orton has written a wonderful melancholic setting for this poem which can be found on one of her finest albums, Sugaring Season.
But the poem I think is about real hatred and real dislike, where those involve dissemble and pretend to be opposite to who they are while harbouring a deep, destructive anger… The scenes in the last series of Peaky Blinders, showing Oswald Mosley at full throttle come to mind. In that instance, hatred of the other is masquerading as good sense and decency — which is in his case fascism.
Blake seems to be saying that however difficult we find it we must stand up to our real foes, and express our angers because if we don’t the consequences are terrible. Courage and forgiveness are also required, which can be found for a friend — but someone you really don’t like? That’s another matter. It is easier with a friend but maybe not impossible with a foe.
Good advice from 225 years ago. Oh, William Blake you were wise. You looked directly at hatred and what it does.
As Adrian Mitchell(a great admirer of Blake) wrote 150 years later:
The truth is the truth it’s a strange kind of animal, so I stay awake listening for the truth.
Adrian Mitchell’s The Truth is published in Come on Everybody – Poems 1953-2008, published by Bloodaxe Books. And you can read The Guardian’s obituary for Mitchell, “in whom the legacies of Blake and Brecht coalesce with the zip of Little Richard and the swing of Chuck Berry…” who wrote Tyger for the National Theatre in 1971, “a time-travelling musical about a visionary 18th-century poet in today’s fallen times, with music by long-term collaborator Mike Westbrook.”
You can hear Beth Orton’s song, Poison Tree, on YouTube – and of course Finding Blake guest contributors Astralingua and Mick and Kate Stannard have also shared their own adaptations of Blake’s poem with us.
Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White announces a special public event and an exclusive film for our project, courtesy of award-winning poet Sasha Dugdale. Sasha’s recent poem Joy brings us the voice of Catherine Blake, wife to William Blake and ‘vital presence and assistant throughout his life’.
And he is gone, fled singing to some place I cannot reach. His angels came and he sang to them and they told him they needed him more than I did… Merciless, merciless angels… Merciless angels who know nothing of human despair. And he went with them. He nodded and spoke mild words and was soon gone… And he left a shadow of grime on his collar and a warm bed. And the angels had tall wings, like steeples, or like sails and spread white like the King’s ship in dock, and they took him, only I couldn’t see them, but I know how they looked, for hadn’t he spent all his life in their company and mine? And didn’t they sometimes appear in white like good children, and sometimes like ladies but barefoot, with rosy pink staining their necks and hands and ringlets in their hair? Their sighs were angel swords and their smiles were beams of light. He smiled at me, as if to say can’t you see how bonny they are today, on this, my death day, and there’s the whole pity of it, for I couldn’t see, and I never could.
— from Joy, by Sasha Dugdale
And so spake Catherine Blake, reflecting back upon the life and death of her life-long husband William in 1827; or so writes Sasha Dugdale, poet and translator, who in this wondrous monologue gives voice to one of the most silent muses the world has known — who inspired steadily her vacillating husband-genius, is known to have helped him print and paint his masterpieces, and to whom he dedicated much of his writings.
The monologue and its volume of other poems, Joy, won the Forward Prize for best single poem in 2016, and was described by the judges as “an extraordinarily sustained visionary piece of writing”. Sasha has written three other collections of poetry, is known for her promotion and translation of Russian literature, and is co-director of the Winchester Poetry Festival. She is currently poet-in-residence at St John’s College, Cambridge.
We at Finding Blake are delighted to announce that we will be exclusively filming Sasha reading her monologue, to be premiered here on our website and in the final Finding Blake film to be released later this year. On the same day — 11th April, at 7pm — Sasha will be giving a public reading of some of Joy and other work. The venue is a wonderful Victorian engineer’s house, undergoing restoration in the grounds of the Cambridge Museum of Technology by the River Cam. The house — now named ‘Othersyde’, with its lovely gardens and outdoor bar with views across the river onto a nature reserve in the heart of the city — is a new arts and escape rooms venue that I’ve been involved with for some time. This event is the finale of a winter series of literary & musical salons.
The event is on Thursday April 11th at 7pm. All welcome, though early booking essential as it’s a cosy intimate venue — with only 25 seats! Booking info is here, and then please email me for a Paypal link to secure your ticket.
For further information on Catherine Blake, see Wikipedia, and there is an essay on her by Angus Whitehead at the Blake Archive.
For further information about Sasha Dugdale, see her Wikipedia page. You can enjoy another excerpt from Joy at the Forward Arts Foundation, (where there is also an interview with her), and here is a review from the Poetry School. The collection Joy (2017) is published by Carcanet Press, and was Winner of the 2017 Poetry Book Society Winter Choice Award; the poem Joy was Winner of the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.
To find out more about Othersyde, visit their Facebook page.